‘Survival of the fittest’: Alberta breeders struggle as demand dwindles amid Europe’s horsemeat scandal
It was much like any other horse sale, said auctioneer Dean Edge; chatty farmers and ranchers packed the bright blue stands to watch about 60 horses be led across a thick sawdust floor to be sold to the highest bidder.
Sales in the small auction house are much as they’ve always been. Cowboy hats are still a common sight and a good market is half social event, half business. The only thing that’s changed is the price.
These days, the only people making a profit seem to be the line cooks handing out fried foods at the concession stand.
“It was a good night,” Mr. Edge said after the crowd had left. “But it’s like pulling teeth trying to get someone to bid.”
Of the five dozen horses that went up for auction, Mr. Edge predicted about 50 were sold for meat. And not for much, even at that.
“It was definitely lower. The prices were 20 cents a pound lower than a month ago.”
That’s another bad week, and Alberta’s horse breeders have had plenty.
As Europe reels at growing tales of equine meatballs and mislabeled lasagna — on Friday, Britain’s food regulator said testing had found horsemeat in ground beef at Taco Bell outlets — ranchers here are dealing with an entirely different disaster.
The two local horsemeat processing plants have all but shut operations – a slowdown that’s expected to last until next week, at least.
While distributors across the Atlantic struggle to get to the heart of the tainted meat scandal, the demand for horse flesh has dropped off. Few seem interested in buying Canada’s stock of lean, rich horsemeat.
As a result, the price per pound has fallen through the floor — again. It’s the latest in a series of setbacks for meat buyers and horse breeders already beset by ongoing policy decisions abroad that have made turning a profit on a pony almost impossible.
“The way feed costs are today, you can’t feed a horse for all you can get for them. You can’t feed a horse for slaughter,” said Bruce Flewelling, a meat buyer from Strathmore, Alta., who raises bucking horses for the rodeo market. “I’ve been processing horses all my life and years ago when we first bought them, it was used for dog food. It’s just a way of life. And I don’t think the rancher … gets upset talking about processing horses. It’s another class of people. In the horse business we call them do-gooders or tree-huggers and they’re continually at us over this process. But there’s gotta be a place that everybody … can all dispose of our older crippled processing horses.”
Four plants in Canada process horsemeat. Alberta – where a third of the country’s herd resides – is home to two of them. The other two are in Quebec, where eating delicate steaks of cheval is more common than in the anglosphere.
In 2011, Alberta exported $42-million worth of the meat, about .62% of its total haul from agricultural products sent abroad.
Insiders say it’s a niche industry; the abattoir owners generally know the butchers and shops that stock their meat. They’re therefore very confident no Canadian meat has been implicated in any of the scandals to date.
Although horsemeat has been passed off for beef as a tricky cost-saving measure in Europe, Canada tends to serve a high-end clientele.
According to the provincial government, its top market is Japan. Every week, about 100 live horses are shuttled onto aircraft and taken to Asia where they’re butchered fresh and eaten raw.
The meat itself is also shipped to France, Switzerland and Belgium.
Proponents prize the horse’s lean, sweet taste; higher in protein and lower in fat than a typical beefsteak. But the consumption of horses has always received mixed reviews in Western culture. It was once forbidden by a Papal ban ignored in France during the revolution, when the pastimes of the outcast aristocracy were put to better use in the stomachs of the poor. Since then, horse largely retained its saveur in French cuisine.
Despite this history, consumption of horse is swiftly becoming passé even in France. And this dying taste for the foodstuff is bad news in Alberta. Not just for the processing industry, but for the welfare of the horses as well.
In 2007, amid an outraged appeal by animal rights activists, horsemeat plants were shut down in the U.S. In the years following, the number of horses shipped to Canada for slaughter rose by the tens of thousands, flooding the market and sharply reducing the price local ranchers could receive for their stock.
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